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Participants and Alumni


First FOCUS cohort on campus during the inaugural Summer Institute held July 2019.

Upcoming Opportunities to Participate

The FOCUS Program will begin recruiting its 2022-2023 cohort in late 2021. The first step is to submit the pre-application through the PRIDE Coordination Core. If you have any questions or would like to express interest, please contact 

Current Participants

FOCUS Alumni


Oscar abilez, md, phd, ms

Dept. of Medicine, Div. of Cardiovascular Medicine
Stanford University

FOCUS Small Research Project Title | Elucidating the Role of NOTCH1 in Impaired Cardiogenesis in Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome Using Vascularized Cardiac Tissue Derived from Human Pluripotent Stem Cells

Francisco Altamirano

Francisco Altamirano, phd

Assistant Professor
Department of Cardiovascular Sciences
Houston Methodist Research Institute & the Weill Cornell Medical College

Dr. Altamirano received his Ph.D. degree in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Chile. He has extensive experience studying the molecular mechanisms that drive striated muscle pathology. In 2015, Dr. Altamirano decided to join UT Southwestern for his postdoctoral training to study the role of Polycystin-1 in cardiovascular disease. His research focused on understanding how mutations in the gene PKD1 affect cardiac function. PKD1 encodes for Polycystin-1, a protein mutated in autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD). Dr. Altamirano made the unexpected discovery that polycystin-1 (PC1) governs multiple voltage-gated potassium channels in cardiomyocytes, thereby affecting membrane repolarization and shaping cardiomyocyte action potential and cardiac function. Recently, Dr. Altamirano received a Career Development Award from the American Heart Association to continue his independent research. In 2020, as a new assistant professor, he started his lab at Houston Methodist Research Institute in Houston, aiming to uncover the role of Polycystin-1 in cardiovascular function and electrical remodeling.

Francisco Alvarado

Francisco alvarado, pharmd, phd

Associate Scientist
Dept. of Medicine, Cardiovascular Research Center
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dr. Alvarado trained as a Pharmacist at the University of Costa Rica and moved to the United States in 2011 to attend graduate school. He received a PhD in Molecular and Integrative Physiology from the University of Michigan and joined the Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. His main research interest is on the role of calcium as a critical second messenger and how dysregulation of calcium homeostasis may lead to heart disease. His favorite protein is the cardiac ryanodine receptor (RyR2), the major calcium release channel in the heart. During his graduate/postdoctoral training, he developed a strong background in cardiac electrophysiology and calcium handling in the normal and diseased hearts, while characterizing a novel RyR2 mutation from a patient with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. His current research focuses on novel mechanisms of cardiac arrhythmia in a rabbit model of catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT), an inherited syndrome caused mainly by mutations in RyR2. He has experience in a wide range of techniques, including the measurement of cellular calcium signals with confocal microscopy, pharmacological studies with radioligands, patch clamp, Langendorff perfusion of isolated hearts, and in vivo recordings of electrocardiograms and intracardiac electrical activity. As a junior investigator in the process of establishing his research niche, he is looking to establish new collaborations, learn new experimental approaches and expand the scope of his work. Hence, he is thrilled to participate in FOCUS.

Irene Cal Y Mayor Turnbull

Irene Cal Y Mayor Turnbull, Md

Assistant Professor
Cardiovascular Research Center
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Dr. Cal y Mayor Turnbull's work involves fabricating human engineered cardiac tissues (hECT) from human induced pluripotent stem cell (hiPSC)-derived cardiomyocytes, and their application as in vitro platforms to test the efficacy and possible cardio toxicity of novel therapies, including both gene and cell therapy approaches. Her work in tissue engineering technologies has involved three main areas of research, 1) the investigation of cell-based therapy approaches for improving cardiac contractility, 2) the development of 3D human myocardium models of acquired cardiomyopathies, and 3) the development of 3D human myocardium models of inherited cardiomyopathies using gene editing and gene therapy approaches combined with human iPSC technology. For her future research project, she aims to investigate the mechanisms through which non-cardiomyocytes can impact cardiomyocyte function. She will be fabricating hECT with hiPSC derived cardiomyocytes, and she will also fabricate heterotypic tissues, where, in addition to the cardiomyocyte component, she will include non-cardiomyocyte cells, using hiPSC derived -fibroblasts, -smooth muscle and -endothelial cells. After functional and structural characterization, she plans to perform RNA seq to identify the molecular signature differences between hCM-only vs. heterotypic hECT.

Kristine Deleon-Pennell

Kristine Deleon-Pennell, PhD

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Medicine, Division of Cardiology
Medical University of South Carolina

Dr. DeLeon-Pennell's research background is in dissecting the interplay of pre-existing variables, such as chronic inflammation or sex, on cardiovascular events. These changes include cell-matrix interactions, which both affect and react to processes involved in tissue repair. The immediate goal of her research is to determine how cross-talk between the innate and adaptive immune system regulates the fibrotic process ultimately leading to adverse remodeling following myocardial infarction (MI). She is the first person to demonstrate that the co-existing chronic inflammation due to a periodontal pathogen leads to adverse LV remodeling and thus facilitating in poor prognosis post-MI. It was her research in this area that gave rise to the idea that CD8+ T-cell activation may be a negative regulator of post-MI remodeling by regulating the innate immune system. In 2017, she was awarded a career development award from the VA on first submission to pursue her research interests on the effects of CD8+ T-cells on cardiac remodeling post-MI. In 2018, she moved and started her lab at the Medical University of South Carolina and the Ralph H Johnson VA Medical Center. For her R01/VA Merit submission, she would like to expand on this project and evaluate the role of CD8+ T-cells on macrophage physiology. For this project, she hypothesizes that CD8+ T-cells regulate the cardiovascular wound healing process by activating, killing, and removing monocyte-derived macrophages from the infarct.

Demetria McNeal

Demetria mcneal, phd, mba

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Medicine, Div. of General Internal Medicine
University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus

Dr. McNeal is an academically trained health communication scientist with pharmaceutical industry, healthcare consulting and clinical experience. Her unique skill set as an academic researcher with realworld healthcare management and consultant experience positions her to advance the fields of health equity research and dissemination and implementation science through novel approaches to improve patient outcomes and health care delivery. Dr. McNeal previously completed two postdoctoral fellowships, in the University of Colorado Adult and Child Consortium for Health Outcomes Research and Delivery Science (ACCORDS) Center and with the Veterans Health Administration (VA) in Health Services Research and Delivery Science. Her overarching research goal is to reduce health inequities in cardiovascular disease treatment and healthcare delivery, particularly in the African American population. To achieve this overarching goal, Dr. McNeal seeks to work in partnership with health care systems, clinics and local communities to implement and disseminate evidence-based programs to improve cardiovascular outcomes in African Americans.

Sam Senyo

Sam Senyo, PHD

Assistant Professor
Department of Biomedical Engineering
Case Western Reserve University

Dr. Senyo joined CWRU-BME in 2016 after a postdoctoral fellowship cardiac regenerative biology at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. His early work examined the source of slow turnover in the mammalian heart using stable isotope imaging. His laboratory continues to investigate cardiac regeneration with a focus on mechano-biology and extracellular stimuli. His research program aims to reverse effects of disease and aging that impair regeneration potential with the efforts of a multidisciplinary team. His trainees come from around the world: Asia, Africa, Europe, US, and Caribbean. As a team, his lab employs microfluidics, molecular biology, and tissue engineering as our primary tools, and he has purposely selected students with a diverse background across engineering disciplines and material science. Since his faculty appointment, he has been lead-lecturer of four courses. He has recently narrowed his classes to a Tissue Engineering course and a Biomaterials course. The classes complement research topics in his lab and allow him to devote a majority of his attention to his research. The pandemic levels of diabetes and obesity in the US have extended the lab focus to include diabetic cardiomyopathy that overlaps with aspects of other forms of cardiovascular disease. Ultimately, his fascination with novel biological paradigms approached from an engineering perspective has driven a lot of his work to date.

Nathaly Sweeney

Nathaly Sweeney, MD, MPH, MS

Assistant Clinical Professor
Dept. of Pediatrics, Division of Neonatology
University of California, San Diego

Dr. Sweeney is board certified in general pediatrics and pediatric cardiology. She earned her undergraduate degree from Springfield College, Springfield, MA and her graduate degrees from the University of Texas at El Paso, TX and the Johns Hopkins University- Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, MD. She obtained her medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, NY, NY and completed a pediatric residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD. Dr. Sweeney completed her pediatric cardiology fellowship at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital-Stanford University, CA. After completion of her cardiology fellowship, she remained at Stanford as a clinician in the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) and an academic staff researcher investigating potential pathways and modifier genes leading to familial tetralogy of Fallot (TOF) by enrolling families with multiple members affected with various phenotypes of TOF in a Whole Exome Sequencing (WES) study. She has experience in both translational and basic science research. She subsequently moved to University of California San Diego to complete a Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Fellowship in an effort to better care for the neonate with congenital heart disease (CHD). Dr. Sweeney is interested in the application of individualized medicine in the care of neonates with suspected genetic disease, especially those with CHD. Her research at Rady Children's Institute for Genomic Medicine focuses on identifying genotypic differences via rapid genomic sequencing that may explain the observed phenotypes with the goal of offering prompt, directed, accurate, personalized care to patients in the intensive care unit and beyond.

Francisco Contijoch

Francisco Contijoch, phd, mse

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Bioengineering, Dept. of Radiology
University of California, San Diego

Dr. Contijoch received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and was then a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Cardiology Division at UC San Diego. Dr. Contijoch’s research focuses on cardiopulmonary imaging and physiology. His laboratory develops data acquisition, image reconstruction and analysis strategies for clinical imaging modalities to improve diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of disease. His work has previously focused on evaluating regional cardiac function after myocardial infarction, quantifying cardiac function in patients with arrhythmias, and improving quantification of coronary CT angiography. His current research focuses on patients with cardiopulmonary dysfunction due to left ventricular disease, pulmonary hypertension, or congenital heart disease

Cerrone Foster

Cerrone Foster, Phd

Assistant Professor
Department of Biological Sciences
East Tennessee State University

Dr. Foster's research examines the effects of estrogen loss on cardiac remodeling and cell signaling pathways that can serve as an alternative to protect the heart from failure in ageing and postmenopausal women. Her lab uses an ovariectomized mouse model as well as transgenic mouse models to mimic estrogen loss and signaling. Her lab is currently examining the role of microdomain structures, such as caveolae in estrogen signaling in the heart. The FOCUS program has been beneficial in providing a structure and accountability for achieving her career and research goal. The monthly mentoring meetings have been invaluable to discuss research techniques and grant development. She has also published a manuscript with her research mentor, Dr. Hemal Patel.

Miguel Lopez-Ramirez

Miguel Lopez-Ramirez, PhD, MSC

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Medicine, Div. of Rheumatology, Allergy, & Immunology
University of California, San Diego

Dr. Lopez-Ramirez' degrees are in Pharmaceutical Science and Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology. He is trained as a neurovascular biologist interested in better understanding brain vascular abnormalities and designing novel, non-invasive, safe, and effective therapeutic strategies. His work investigates the role of genes involved in Cerebral Cavernous Malformations (CCM) disease and their implications in cardiovascular biology. His research has spanned from studies of microRNA, blood-brain barrier function, neuro-inflammation, and to the pathogenesis of CCM. His experimental work has involved studies in zebrafish, mice, and humans, and he has employed the entire armamentarium of molecular and cell biology, in addition to pathological analysis. His work has led to the identification of potential new therapies for CCM. His current research is focused on understanding the hemorrhagic stroke observed in CCM lesions, and how a notable increase of anticoagulant factors in the brain vasculature predisposed to cerebral hemorrhage. Additionally, he is investigating the substantial heterogeneity in grades of severity among patients affected by CCMs and whether environmental factors may act as disease modifiers that promote neurovascular lesions during CCM.

Maria Mendez

Mariela mendez, phd, ms

Assistant Professor
Hypertension and Vascular Research Division
Henry Ford Hospital

During her PhD training, Dr. Mendez worked with primary cultures of cardiomyocytes. She acquired experience in molecular biology techniques to study signaling mechanisms controlling cardiac hypertrophy in cells, as well as whole animal physiology to understand the role of prostaglandins in remodeling and cardiac infarction in vivo and in vitro. Since then, she has been particularly intrigued by how processes occurring at a very small scale govern cell structure and function, especially in models of disease, such as hypertension. Renin is the single most important enzyme for blood pressure control since it is the rate limiting step in the production of angiotensin II. Her laboratory is interested in studying the biology and mechanisms of exocytosis of renin. The tools to study renin biology have been under-developed. The field has remained static due to the absence of a good physiological model. Over the last 8 years, her lab has developed new methods to study JG cell-derived renin release and the mechanisms that control renin exocytosis in vivo. Her lab is taking an integrative approach from molecular biology to whole animal physiology and diseased models. Her lab's long-term goal is to uncover novel targets for development of pharmacological agents to prevent hypertension and kidney damage.


Joshua Muia, Phd

Assistant Professor
Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology
Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences

Dr. Muia is a basic scientist with broad training and expertise in chemistry, biochemistry, and thrombosis and hemostasis. His research skills and experience are unique because he works at the interface of bench science and clinical research; translating basic science discoveries into applications that seek to improve diagnosis and evaluation of patients. As a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Muia worked on the antithrombotic metalloprotease ADAMTS13 and its biological substrate, von Willebrand factor (VWF) protein. Deficiency of ADAMTS13 impairs regulation of platelet adhesion by VWF, which can result in a lifethreatening microvascular thrombotic disorder called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP). He has contributed enormously to the understanding of how ADAMTS13 protease is regulated and to the development of enzyme assays that have been used to assess the therapeutic efficacy of the drug rituximab in autoimmune TTP. Recently, his research interests as a junior faculty have expanded to include other ADAMTS proteases. There are 19 members of the ADAMTS protease family; however, their roles in biology and their biochemical properties remain poorly characterized. Several genome-wide association studies have linked the metalloprotease ADAMTS7 to an increased risk of atherosclerosis or coronary artery disease (CAD). These findings have been validated in human studies and in mouse models of atherosclerosis. Despite the emerging evidence between ADAMTS7 and CAD severity, the fundamental mechanisms mediating ADAMTS7-induced CAD are unknown. His main goals for this project are to determine how ADAMTS7 is regulated, how it interacts with substrates, and how its activity modulates the risk of CAD.

Sonya Neal

Sonya Neal, PHD

Assistant Professor
Div. of Biological Sciences, Sec. of Cell & Developmental Biology
University of California, San Diego

Dr. Neal received her Ph.D. from U.C. Los Angeles in 2013 after working in the laboratory of Dr. Carla Koehler where she was the recipient of Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Predoctoral Fellowship. She then carried out her postdoctoral studies at U.C. San Diego in the laboratory of Dr. Randolph Hampton. She was the recipient of the Burroughs Wellcome Postdoctoral Diversity Enrichment Award and Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Postdoctoral Fellowship. Dr. Neal joined the faculty as an assistant professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at U.C. San Diego in 2018. She is a current recipient of the R35 Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award and Pew Biomedical Award. Dr. Neal’s research strives to understand the basic biology of protein homeostasis and how organisms use quality control pathways to mitigate protein misfolding stress and regulate key biological processes such as cholesterol production.

Candice Price

Candice Price, Phd

Assistant Adjunct Professor
Department of Molecular Biosciences
University of California, Davis

Dr. Price's research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of cardiometabolic disease development in Black women, with a particular focus on the role of sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption. In addition to identifying the impact of SSB on traditional lipid risk factors, she is also looking to understand the potential epigenetic effects of SSB through the measurement of microRNAs and DNA methylation, as well as the gut microbiome. Future investigations will utilize metabolomics to gain further insight into the molecular mechanisms through which high SSB consumption impairs metabolic function. Dr. Price's participation in the PRIDE FOCUS program has provided her the most impactful and fulfilling training and development at a critical juncture in her career. In addition to the grant writing and statistics training, she was paired with two incredible mentors with very relevant research focuses who continue to be available to provide feedback, advice and career-advancement opportunities. She feels more prepared and more confident now than she did a year ago as she works towards developing her research program.

Paola Ross

Paola Rosas, Md, Phd

Research Assistant Professor
Department of Physiology and Biophysics
University of Illinois at Chicago

Dr. Paola Rosas' training began in Peru where she earned a BS degree in Pharmacy and Biochemistry and a Medical degree. After practicing as a physician for two years in Peru, Dr. Rosas worked as a pharmacist in the US until she started a graduate program at Texas A&M University. During her graduate studies, Dr. Rosas proposed a unique approach that utilized heat shock proteins to modulate pancreatic β-cell destruction due to misfolded human islet amyloid polypeptide (h-IAPP). She created a transgenic C. elegans model that expressed h-IAPP and demonstrated that heat shock protein 72 overexpression improved h-IAPP solubility and prevented β-cell toxicity. Dr. Rosas’ postdoctoral training focused in elucidating the mechanisms of heart failure with preserved ejection fraction (HFpEF), which accounts for ~50% of all cases of heart failure and lacks effective treatment. She joined Dr. Carl Tong’s laboratory and demonstrated that phosphorylation of cardiac Myosin Binding Protein-C (cMyBP-C), a thick filament protein, is a critical mediator of diastolic function. She received the JACC Basic to Translational Science 2019 Young Author Achievement Award related to her recent publication demonstrating that cMyBP-C phosphorylation is essential to preserve diastolic function during aging. Dr. Rosas’ research focuses on investigating the causes of gender-related differences in heart failure due to different stressors such as aging, obesity, and diabetes, with the ultimate goal of finding a common denominator with the potential of being translated into therapy.

Elsie Ross

Elsie Ross, Md, MSc

Assistant Professor
Department of Surgery, Department of Medicine
Stanford University

Dr. Ross is a vascular surgeon and research scientist. She graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine in 2011 and completed her vascular surgery 0+5 residency at Stanford University School of Medicine in 2018. During her residency, she completed a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in biomedical informatics. Her current research focuses on using machine learning and electronic health records for early disease identification, precision medicine, and evaluating opportunities to engage in patient education beyond the clinic.

Daniel Valdez-Jasso

Daniela valdez-jasso, phd, ms

Assistant Professor
Department of Bioengineering
University of California, San Diego

Dr. Valdez-Jasso received her Undergraduate and Masters degrees in Applied Mathematics, and her doctoral degree in Biomathematics, all from the Department of Mathematics at North Carolina State University. Her graduate thesis focused on modeling approaches to understanding the dynamic pressure-area relationship of systemic arteries. During her postdoctoral training at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where she was an American Heart Association postdoctoral fellow, a member of the Vascular Medicine Institute, and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, she investigated the tissue structure and biomechanics of the normal and pressure-overloaded right ventricle. Dr. Valdez-Jasso joined the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Bioengineering Department as an Assistant Professor in 2017. Prior to that, she was an Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she established her research laboratory in soft-tissue biomechanics and in multi-scale mathematical modeling of tissue function, particularly as they pertain to understanding the vascular and right-ventricular adaptations to pulmonary arterial hypertension. Her work was funded by the American Heart Association Scientist Development Grant. At UCSD, she is the Faculty mentor of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers student chapter and the 2020 UCSD recipient of the Faculty Inclusion Excellence Award. At the national level, she is the Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering Bioengineering Division, member of the Bioethics Subcommittee and Strategic Outcomes Subcommittee of the American Heart Association.

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